New Series

Heaven Sent: Divine


As Saturday night entertainment goes, a profund exploration of grief, fear, suffering and captivity is hardly on a par with pizza and wine. But Heaven Sent wasn’t just an all-time classic, with a performance from Peter Capaldi that rivets you to your seat, some of the best direction seen on the series and Steven Moffat’s redemption all rolled into one. It was a triumphant return for a show that has frequently lost sight of its own possibilities over the last ten years.

Doctor Who is the only show on television that could do something like Heaven Sent: to command sufficient money and audience attention to get away with it; to play with form and convention as much as it did; to explore the reaches of outer and inner space; dread, loss and despair; moving castles, a sea of skulls and a remorseless wraith. A Grimm fairytale, an MR James short story, a PC puzzle game and a Hollywood blockbuster. It even lifted straight from its own stablemate – the Doctor’s mind palace a clear nod to Sherlock.

Doctor Who’s magpie tendencies were on full display here – and the show has never felt so confident, so right in its unique ability to do thumb its nose at convention, to write its own script. To go the long way around.

At its most banal these past ten years, Doctor Who has felt like a pastiche of pop-culture references – it hasn’t seemed especially different from other programmes and, perhaps, more importantly, from itself. You can draw a straight line between The Shakespeare Code and Root Of Sherwood – or The Lodger and The Caretaker. Modern-day Earth invasion stories and time-travel cats cradles and historical pastiches. Doctor Who has spent a lot of the last decade sending itself up – or serving up warm reheats. But Heaven Sent didn’t simply feel like nothing else on television; it felt like no other Doctor Who.


Estates and flat and chips and fleets of flying Daleks and BBC newsreaders and Murray Gold’s awful kidult Hollywood music have become a rut for Doctor Who over the last decade: a comfort zone that has become not only a default setting, but a received wisdom: you can’t defy the template, they say; you can’t put off the casual viewers.

But this sort of thinking is a trap. It forces Doctor Who – that programme of limitless possibilities – into ever-decreasing circles, a room whose walls will only keep closing in. The overall trend of the series has been one of diminishing returns, with adventures into the surreal, uncomfortable or odd – the very things that Doctor Who is known for – more scarce than a two-handed Dapol Davros.


Both of Doctor Who’s showrunners have lapsed into these ruts and they are evident in episodes including – but not limited to – New Earth, The Shakespeare Code, Vampires Of Venice, The Poison Sky, Cold War, The Caretaker. Episodes whose only aspiration seems to be to last 45 minutes. Or the patented end-of-series, kitchen-sink gangbangs. Episodes where every last gimmick and lampshade will be deployed to paper over the cracks of a plot that doesn’t really make any sense.

Steven Moffat has virtually admitted that his primary motivation when writing Doctor Who is to maintain the attention of people who might be inlined to switch over – an approach that puts me in mind of Magnus Greel having to absorb the life essences of more and more young girls, just to stay alive.

But in supplicating before an audience – serving up the same old tropes, the ones that are familiar and palatable – can never be a sustainable approach. Doctor Who has always succeeded by playing by its own rules, changing, reinventing itself and kicking against expectations. When it’s good and daring and different it turns casual viewers into dedicated viewers, into fans. The very people who resurrected the series. How many programmes have the power to do that?

Heaven Sent certainly did. It currently has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has been routinely described as one of the best episodes in the show’s 52-year history. And it did this in spite of the fact that featured The Doctor alone in an incomprehensible castle, bereft at the death of his friend, in a bespoke torture-chamber. Perhaps because of it. Its audience was good for the slot and Twitter has buzzing for hours afterwards. Heaven Sent was a success by any metric.

It’s a modern paradigm that means trying to woo viewers, those viewers who will never like Doctor Who through the modern curse of relatability, is a fool’s errand. Russell T Davies’ famous aside about the planet Zog is perhaps the most unfortunate observation in modern television and has cast a long shadow over the programme. It’s a received wisdom that has closed many doors to the programme and it’s based on a whim, a funny soundbite.

The outcome of this is most obvious in David Tennant shouting and Matt Smith waving his arms around and companions fancying the Doctor and Moffat’s speechifying and Murray Gold’s schmaltz. It’s led Doctor Who’s makers to only try to make programmes like Doctor Who.

You couldn’t have something like Heaven Sent every week. It’s a gruelling watch that requires – albeit rewards – attention; it’s upsetting, horrifying and slow and features no audience identification figure. Its music is offbeat, weird, dissonant – surely a deliberate echo of the classic show’s Radiophonic Workshop synths and it’s startling how successful they are in freeing the show of its familiar ambiance. Its direction occasionally reminiscent of Tarkovsky; its chiaroscuro cinematography. A 57-minute one-hander with a 57-year-old lead actor.

All things that have been thought impossible in the modern Doctor Who. No, you couldn’t have it every week – but you could have something as different as Heaven Sent every week. It’s a story that demands rewatching. Its sheer quality deserves it; as a lesson in what makes Doctor Who vital, it commands it.

New Series

Under The Lake: Romp


I hate the word romp. It’s a shorthand for switching off your critical faculties, settling for the mediocre and acknowledging that the end result simply isn’t very good. I’m all for changes in pace in Doctor Who – not everything has to be serious, frightening, mythical, revelatory and nor would I want it to be. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to essentially make episodes of Doctor Who that are, almost by definition, rubbish.

In the olden days ‘romps’ tended to be stories that just weren’t very good. I sincerely doubt that anyone went into them with the express purpose of making a ‘romp’. It just so happened that they weren’t of a very high quality so, retrospectively, we excuse these stories as romps. “Oh, just a good old-fashioned Doctor Who romp,” someone like Gary Russell or Tom Spilsbury will say of, for example, Time And The Rani. What they mean is that it’s a load of old balls.


What has changed, I think, is that Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat have approached the new series of Doctor Who with a view that, every now and then, they will actively commission a romp. And this, I think, is a mistake. Because ‘romp’ remains code for ‘not very good’. That they veer towards meta-fiction due to the amount of self-reflexivity, in-jokes and general indulgence, amounts to barely more than a fig leaf.

The most egregious example of the self-aware, self-described romp in recent times is Robot Of Sherwood, only the second-ever Doctor Who story whose end remains a mystery to me. I simply went and did something else, unable to bear the colossal weight of archness thudding out of the television. Robot Of Sherwood was surely commissioned as a romp, written as a romp and executed as a romp. People are barely trying at any stage of the proceedings and it’s only the typically glossy production values and some ‘aren’t-we-clever’ dialogue that saves it from a reputation as bad as anything the classic series could throw at you.


Even The Magician’s Apprentice was unable to wrest itself out of the gravity of romp – the deleterious scene where the Doctor plays his own theme tune on an electric guitar for no meaningful reason is an example of the currency that the production staff seem to think the show must deal in. It exists only to be eye-catching, Vine-able and thoroughly pleased with itself. It reeks of romp. Moffat clearly believes that this is part of the fabric of the show these days. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Toby Whithouse’s latest episode for the series was everything a romp should be. There is – so far – no narrative trickiness, no unreliable narrators, no postmodernist stylings, no mythicism (otherwise known as fanwank) and no scenes that exist just to give a platform to the Doctor to be boastful, idiotic or just downright twatty. It rattled along without sub-plots or series arc; it developed at a pace that, while fast, was not incoherent; it adopted the same tone throughout; it was funny rather than wacky; the Doctor was an alien, not a dickwad. It did not aspire to do anything more than tell a fairly straightforward story well. Put simply, it was a romp. And so much the better for it.


Doctor Who has been tiring me for a while now. My patience with the series has stretched to the point where, on two occasions in the last two years, I simply turned off the television halfway through an episode. I no longer watch the stories as soon as I can – often waiting a few days before watching it on catch-up or iPlayer. And last night I found myself discussing this with a couple of other fans who are tired of the programme. Despite the brilliance of Peter Capaldi, the odd flourish when Steven Moffat really tries and the fact that this is, after all, a constant companion, we’re all a little bored of Doctor Who. This brand of it anyway.

Moffat’s take on the show – after the enjoyably straightforward and rather ingenuous Season 5 – has tied itself up in narrative knots, so much so that Moffat’s production notes section in DWM has become a sort of addendum to his episodes where he explains – admittedly with amusing turns of phrase – what the heck is going on. It’s aware of its own cleverness – just like the Doctor as written by both showrunners – and, as with a boastful colleagues or loudmouth braggarts, this becomes tiresome. And like anything that becomes too familiar, it breeds contempt.


Davies and Moffat both demonstrated that they understood the show must evolve and change. In the worst moments of Season Eight – and the crashingly predictable Dalek two-parter of the last fortnight – the latter seems to have lost sight of that.

With a tight, pacy, funny and frightening episode Toby Whithouse has demonstrated how it can be done. The Doctor’s cue cards made me laugh out loud. A back-on-song Capaldi – socially inept but odd, funny and basically nice – thrilled me with the possibilities of his Doctor, written here as well as he has been by anyone.


And a scary, intriguing story harked back to Doctor Who’s best traditions – with a cliffhanger to match anything in the series. With its Weyland-Yutani company man and game of monster-tag there was Whithouse falling back on a reliable old Doctor Who trope of wearing your influences on your sleeve. It felt traditional – both in terms of the story and how it used to brazenly rip off genre favourites to make something greater than the sum of its parts. That’s how you do a romp.

Under The Lake also feels definitive in terms of where the current series – and Twelfth Doctor – can and should go. Cast against Steven Moffat’s recent efforts it was a breath of fresh air. Could it be that, over the past three weeks, we’ve seen the torch passed on? Just as Steven Moffat rebooted the series by playing against Russell T Davies’ weary interpretation – and in going back to a tight but simple storyline – Whithouse has demonstrated a template for how Doctor Who can thrive in a post-Moffat world.